NEPD Editor: Mike Loyko
We are now less than 40 days until the 2014 NFL Draft. The official draft order is set, the compensation picks are known, and we’ve gained a lot more clarity now that free agency is winding down. Although more moves will be made before the Patriots go on the clock May 8th, we now have a better understanding of areas they will and won’t target.
The draft board is still very fluid and a lot can still change, but I take my best shot at projecting what the Patriots 2014 NFL Draft will look like.
Current Team Needs:
Defensive Tackle: Vince Wilfork and Tommy Kelly are back in the fold for 2014. Neither player is in the long term plans and the options behind these two leave a lot to be desired. A high-ceiling, disruptive interior presence is still needed.
Linebacker: Patriots lost Brandon Spikes and Dane Fletcher. After their top three starters the depth is non-exsistent. At least one sub-package coverage LB is needed and depth can be added at all three spots.
Pass Rush: Whether it a 4-3 Defensive End, 3-4 Outside Linebacker, or 4-3 OLB the Patriots need more pass rushers. Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich can’t play 1100+ snaps next season. Depth and impact is needed at this position.
Tight End: The Patriots have yet to address the position yet via free agency. I heard they took a close look at a few free agents, but didn’t see anything they felt comfortable with. It’s likely they select at least one TE in the draft, as they need a second receiving threat and insurance for Rob Gronkowski.
Running Back: LeGarrette Blount signed with the Steelers and both Shane Vereen and Stevan Ridley are in contract years. Patriots liked their deep RB rotation and lack a second pass catcher. The draft is stack in the middle rounds with NFL caliber RB. Look for them to pounce.
Interior OL: Ryan Wendell just re-signed, but the Patriots protected themselves greatly with the bonus structure of the deal. Dan Connolly is no lock to be around when the season starts and both can still be upgraded.
Wide Receiver: Even though they retained Julian Edelman and signed Brandon LaFell, don’t discount a receiver. This draft is simply too deep and too talented at Wide Receiver to not be tempted at some point.
Quarterback: Ryan Mallett is in a contract year and it’s unclear if he has a long term future with the team.
Patriots Mock Draft
1st Round (29) - ** TRADE**
The Patriots love to move around the draft board to acquire additional picks and still draft their player. This draft is notoriously deep with impact talent, so the chances of the Patriots trading back are pretty good. Teams looking to move up to draft their Quarterback or a skilled position player will have their eyes on this pick. For the sake of this mock let’s say the Patriots drop down into the middle of the 2nd round and pick up an extra 3rd and 6th in the process.
2nd Round - Dominique Easley, DT, Florida (6’2″/288)
Even thought Vince Wilfork re-signed and Tommy Kelly restructured his contract, defensive tackle remains a position of need. There still isn’t a long term impact presence on the roster and there certainly isn’t a player like Easley. When healthy, Easley is one of the most disruptive interior defenders in the draft. He can line up just about anywhere on the defensive line and is extremely explosive off the ball. His best asset is his ability to penetrate and beat blocks with explosive hands. Easley’s best football is clearly ahead of him. Chalk this pick up as typical Patriots. Easley’s stock would be much higher if not for a second ACL tear suffered in the Fall. In this scenario, the Patriots trade out of the first round, acquire extra draft picks, and still select a player they want.
2nd Round (62) - Troy Niklas, TE, Notre Dame (6’6″/270)
Everyone in their right mind expects the Patriots to select a Tight End at some point in the draft. The Free Agent market is dried up, so the only way we see the “two tight end” offense next season is if the Patriots come away with an impact Tight End early. After thoroughly researching and debating which TE “fits” in New England, I believe it’s Niklas. His combination of size, mobility, and potential to block is exactly what the Patriots need. There is not another Aaron Hernandez in the draft, but there are Tight Ends that can compliment and provide insurance for Rob Gronkowski. Troy Niklas is the best of the bunch.
3rd Round - Jeremy Hill, RB LSU (6’1″/233)
The Patriots lose one big back in LeGarrette Blount and immediately replace him with another on in Jeremy Hill. Hill’s combination of size and speed, along with his better than advertised ability to catch the ball is exactly what this team needs right now. If we look at the Running Back position from top to bottom, there is tremendous uncertainty. Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen are both entering the last year of their deals and both have had their issues at times (Fumbles, Injuries). After that that only other back on the roster is Brandon Bolden, who is a dime a dozen player. Hill would immediately enter the running back rotation and provide the offense with some of the same qualities Blount did. He’s an NFL ready runner, from a pro-style run scheme at LSU. While Hill could go in the late second round, some maturity and character questions will drop him into the third.
3rd Round (93) - Marcus Smith, DE/OLB, Louisville (6’3″/251)
Deciphering which pass rusher the Patriots will select this year is toughest part of this process in my opinion. The edge rush position isn’t as deep compared to other positions this year. If they elect to bypass the guys available to them in the last first round there is a drop off in talent in the 2nd-3rd Rounds, so I don’t think we see them select a traditional 4-3 Defensive End. Instead, I expect them to select another hybrid player that can not only rush the passer, but can drop into coverage and offer more versatility in the front seven.
Marcus Smith is an interesting prospect that is just scratching the surface. A former High School Quarterback that bounced back and forth between End and Outside Linebacker. What makes Smith attractive is his fluidity and his potential in coverage. Not only can this kid rush the passer from multiple alignments, he can drop into coverage and run with Tight Ends. His profile is similar to that of Jamie Collins in that regard. Smith can provide depth and impact at multiple positions and that’s why I believe he will be on the Patriots radar.
4th Round (130) - Brandon Coleman, WR, Rutgers (6’6″/225)
This year’s draft is too deep and talented at Wide Receiver for the Patriots to completely bypass the position. I’m under the impression, that just because the re-signed Julian Edelman and signed Brandon LaFell, that does not mean they are done at receiver. Coleman is the type of player they don’t have on the roster. There are big receivers and then there is Coleman. Standing a legit 6’6″ tall, he’d provide the Patriots with a legitimate big man that can make an impact in the red zone and stretch the defense. Coleman had to suffer through poor Quarterback play and four offensive coordinators in four years at Rutgers. He has more potential than he was allowed to show in college. As we know, the Rutgers connection can never be overlooked.
4th Round (140) (Compensatory) - Christian Kirksey, LB, Iowa (6’2″/233)
Kirksey has become a popular pick in Patriots mock drafts and it’s easy to understand why. Kirksey is a speedy linebacker that not only has the potential to develop into a three down linebacker, but has the skill-set to be an impact special teams player immediately in the NFL. Kirksey can provide depth at all three LB positions. He’s got great speed and the athleticism to match up in coverage with receivers, tight ends, and running backs. His intangibles are through the roof and like some of the other players in this mock, his best football is ahead of him. By adding Marcus Smith and Kirksey, the Patriots immediately become more deeper, more versatile, and much more athletic at the Linebacker position.
6th Round - Jemea Thomas, DB, Georgia Tech (5’9″/192)
Undersized, but versatile and productive defensive back. Thomas has played every position in the secondary and has been successful no matter where he plays. Thomas profiles as a depth and developmental prospect, but one that can add value on Special Teams immdiately. A lot has been made about that Patriots needing a big, physical Strong Safety, but that’s something they aren’t currently looking for.
6th Round (198) (via Philly) - Taylor Hart, DE/DT, Oregon (6’6″/281)
I still believe the Patriots lack that hybrid Defensive Lineman that can play 4-3 DE, 3-4 DT, and even 3-Technique in certain situations. They haven’t had a player like Taylor Hart in a few years now and it’s been missing in my opinion. Hart is a hard-nosed kid with great length. He holds the line, can occupy blockers, but also provide some pass rush when necessary. He’s a high character kid that broke his foot training for the Senior Bowl and can’t work out before the draft.
6th Round (206) - Zach Fulton, OG, Tennessee (6’4″/315)
Four year starter in the SEC, Fulton has been battle tested and actually very consistent. The depth on the Patriots interior Offensive Line is still lacking, but this is a position I could see the Patriots bypassing completely and just cherry picking the UDFA’s they like best. Nevertheless, Fulton is the reliable, coachable Lineman the Patriots tend to target. Nothing flashy about his game, he’s just performed at a high level, vs. top competition, for a long time.
7th Round (244) - Donald Hawkins, OT, Texas (6’5″/310)
Expect the Patriots to add a few depth Offensive Lineman late in the draft. Hawkins is a player that wasn’t invited to the combine, but NFL teams are very high on him. Played Left Tackle for two seasons at Texas and shows raw potential to warrant a late round pick. Marcus Cannon is in the last year of his contract and his role on the team is still in flux. After Nate Solder and Sebastian Vollmer, they lack a true Offensive Tackle, especially one they can develop. Keep an eye on Hopkins late in the draft.